[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church: "Jesus Answers a Theological Riddle". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]
In Mark 12:18-27, the Sadducees approach Jesus with something of a theological riddle...a question that is meant to stump Him and discredit Him as a teacher. Thinking about the question as a riddle throws my mind to old Batman episodes in which the Riddler poses some difficult enigma with regard to his evil plan. I would try to solve it myself, but just as my brain was getting in gear, Batman would beat me (and Robin) to the punch. (There's a quick glimpse into my mind...filled with rabbit trails!)
In this passage, Jesus is not merely interested to display His intellect by answering the Sadducees' question...He is interested in exposing the Sadducees' condition. They are wrong...they are quite wrong (v. 24, 27). I find myself dwelling on one of the reasons they were wrong...they do not know the Scripture (v. 24). They had a deep conviction about the absence of any life after this one, and they were ready to go to war over it. Yet, their theology had spun off in a wrong direction because they had wrongly understood the Scriptures they claimed to know and treasure.
We need to avoid this tragedy. We need to avoid sharing this error with the Sadducees. We do not want to be those of whom it could be said, "Is this not why you are wrong...because you do not know the Scripture?" Our desire is not to simply be right for the sake of being right...it is to be right about the Bible so that our lives are right. Bruce Milne put it this way: "...getting doctrine right is the key to getting everything else right. If we are to know who God is, who we are, and what God wants of us, we need to study the Scripture. That means its teaching as a whole, and that means doctrine" (Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief, p. 14).
So, the goal isn't to grow fat heads full of sound doctrine...the end of which can often be theological pride. The goal is to get our doctrine right through the study of Scripture so that our lives might be right as Scripture studies us. But how can we stay on course? How can we avoid the pitfall of doctrinal pride? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Take in the Word regularly. There will be no right doctrine apart from the steady intake of God's Word. Whatever the amount one reads, it must be truly taken in. As I was growing up, the offering envelopes in my church came with a checklist of weekly tasks. There were things like: "Brought Bible to church", "Made contacts", "Read Bible daily", etc. The Sunday school teacher would sometimes run through these after we turned in our offering, asking each one. I tell you that to say this...taking in the Word regularly should not be done in order to check off one of our spiritual duties. This can actually contribute to pride rather than fight against it. Rather, we must take in the Word with the goal of growth.
To do this, maybe we need to reduce the amount we are reading and spend more time meditating (i.e.- thinking deeply) on what we read. You could choose a book of the Bible, ask your pastor to recommend a commentary for that book, and spend the next year reading a portion of the Bible with the corresponding part of the commentary each day. The point is...we will not know the Scripture if we do not take in the Scripture.
2. Take in the Word prayerfully. Taking in the Word is not merely an academic exercise. When we come to the Bible, we must come as those who need its teaching. We must come confessing our need. We must come knowing that unless God teaches us its truth, we will remain doctrinally clueless. One way to intentionally acknowledge this is to begin our daily Bible reading with prayer.
Here's one example of this kind of prayer: "O God of truth, I thank thee for the holy Scriptures, their precepts, promises, directions, light. In them may I learn more of Christ, be enabled to retain his truth and have grace to follow it. Help me to lift up the gates of my soul that he may come in and show me himself when I search the Scriptures, for I have no lines to fathom its depths, no wings to soar to its heights. By his aid may I be enabled to explore all its truths, love them with all my heart, embrace them with all my power, engraft them into my life. Bless to my soul all grains of truth garnered from thy Word; may they take deep root, be refreshed by heavenly dew, be ripened by heavenly rays, be harvested to my joy and thy praise.
"Help me to gain profit by what I read, as treasure beyond all treasure, a fountain which can replenish my dry heart, its waters flowing through me as a perennial river on-drawn by thy Holy Spirit. Enable me to distill from its pages faithful prayer that grasps the arm of thy omnipotence, achieves wonders, obtains blessings, and draws from streams of mercy. From it show me how thy words have often been unfaithful to thee, injurious to my fellow-men, empty of grace, full of folly, dishonouring to my calling. Then write thy own words upon my heart and inscribe them on my lips; so shall all glory be to thee in my reading of thy Word" (The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, p. 190).
3. Take in the Word in community. What I mean is that the taking in of the Bible is not only a solitary activity...it is meant to be done within the realm of the local church. God has given the church teachers to equip the body by expounding God's Word (Eph. 4:11-14). He has not given them only for those who are young in their faith...He has given them for ALL who are in the faith. We all need to take in the Word in community. Believing that one does not need to sit under teaching or preaching is an expression of the pride of independence. It is the ear saying to the mouth, "I don't need you," which those in the body of Christ must never do (1 Cor. 12:12-26).
Valuing this time as a benefit to our souls will mean making every effort to sit under the teaching of the Bible. If there are small group classes at your church, get involved in those opportunities! You may have to stop wandering hallways and drinking coffee during Sunday school, but when we see studying the Bible in community with others as spiritually beneficial, this is an easy decision to make. For some of us, we've been in these small groups all our lives because it's just what we've done. We may just need to readjust our perspective a bit...knowing that part of our knowing the Scripture and avoiding the tragedy of the Sadducee is taking in the Word in community.
4. Approach theological conflict with humility. This is obviously absent from the Sadducees' interaction with Jesus, and it is all too often absent in our interactions with one another. As long as our minds are affected by the presence of sin (and they are), there will be genuine differences between godly, Bible-believing, gospel-loving Christians. Even when I have a deep, firm conviction that my doctrine is sound and biblical, approaching others with "guns blazing" is not appropriate. Timothy was dealing with false doctrine in the church at Ephesus, and read Paul's counsel to him: "And the Lord's servant [i.e.- you, Timothy] must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness" (2 Tim. 2:24-25a).
This is not an approach which gives up doctrine for the sake of peace with another person. It is an approach that is passionate and yet patient. It is not filled with sarcasm but with gentleness. John Newton spoke about this with regard to the way some who believed in the doctrines of grace (i.e.- Calvinism) approached those who didn't. He writes, "Professors who own the doctrines of free grace often act inconsistently with their own principles when they are angry at the defects of others. A company of travelers fall into a pit, and one of them gets a passenger to draw him out. Now he should not be angry with the rest for falling in nor because they are not yet out as he is. He did not pull himself out. Therefore, instead of reproaching them, he should show them pity. He should avoid, at any rate, going down upon their ground again and show how much better and happier he is upon his own...A man truly illuminated will no more despise others than Bartimaeus, after his own eyes were opened would take a stick and beat every blind man he met" (Out of the Depths, p. 155).
5. Remain teachable. There will never come a day when we cease needing to take in the Word regularly, prayerfully, and in community. The Sadducees' believed that their educational background and present power excused them from the need to learn...especially from a Nazarene rabbi! The truth is...in this life, we will not reach a day when we should stop striving to learn from the Scripture. In this sense, we never "arrive". It is only once God rescues us from this world that we will know as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12). Until that time, we must remain teachable.
Humble, consistent submission to God's Word will help us to avoid the tragedy of the Sadducees. May each of us avoid the pitfall of the oxymoronic state of spiritual pride!